Southeast Asia Struggles with Trash Rejected by China

Muzliza Mustafa, Pimuk Rakkanam, Nontarat Phaicharoen, Tia Asmara and Ami Afriatni
Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Jakarta
190520-ID-trash-1000.jpg Residents of Tamanmekar, a village in Indonesia’s West Java province, search for recyclables amid a mountain of imported plastic trash, May 17, 2019.
Ahmad Syamsudin/BenarNews

Southeast Asian nations are facing increased dumping of waste from industrialized nations, with Malaysia and the Philippines threatening to send back trash to countries of origin.

Manila has recalled its ambassador and other senior diplomats from Canada after Filipino officials said Ottawa had failed to meet a deadline last week for removing tons of waste that it sent to the Philippines six years ago.

The region has seen a spike in imports of mainly plastic waste after China last year stopped importing refuse for recycling to cut down on pollution.

Waste imports into countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam in 2018 were mainly from the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, Belgium and Canada.

“We do not want to be called the world’s dumping ground,” Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin told a news conference on Friday. “We will send the waste back to the country of origin.”

The industrialized nations that shipped their waste to booming local recycling businesses would have to bear the cost in removing and taking back the trash, she said.

Yeo’s comments came a week after 187 countries adopted amendments to the Basel Convention, a 1989 treaty that aims to reduce the movement of plastic and hazardous waste across national borders.

Those amendments, approved during a conference in Geneva this month, would enter into force on Jan. 1, 2021 and require nations that export plastic waste to first obtain permission from countries receiving the trash.

Before it restricted waste imports, China took in about 45 percent of the world’s scrap plastic, according to a 2018 report from Science Advances, a journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But when Beijing enacted a national policy that phased in restrictions on imports of recyclable paper and plastic in January 2018, it caused scrap prices to plummet and turned Southeast Asian nations into primary importers of plastic waste.

“Plastic waste from industrialized countries is literally engulfing communities in Southeast Asia, transforming what were once clean and thriving places into toxic dumpsites,” Von Hernandez, global coordinator of the Break Free from Plastic movement, an alliance of NGOs, said in a statement last month.

“It is the height of injustice that countries and communities with less capacity and resources to deal with plastic pollution are being targeted as escape valves for the throwaway plastic generated by industrialized countries,” he said.

After the Chinese ban went into effect, Malaysia received more imported waste than any other nation, taking in 750,000 metric tons of plastic in 2018, valued at more than 483 million ringgit (U.S. $116 million), according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a trade association based in Washington, D.C.

China’s imports dropped from more than 600,000 tons per month in 2016 to 30,000 tons monthly since January 2018, ISRI said.

“Because of the plastic waste ban imposed by China, other countries made Malaysia as their main location to export the illegal plastic waste,” said Yeo, the Malaysian minister.

While squabbling with industrialized nations to reclaim their waste, many Southeast Asian nations have also taken action after they began imposing import restrictions around mid-2018.

Malaysia issues permanent ban

In July 2018, the Malaysian government revoked import permits for plastic waste. Three months later, authorities issued a permanent ban.

Malaysian authorities also launched a crackdown on unlicensed plastic recyclers. Officials arrested dozens of workers during police raids at illicit factories that were trying to cash-in on the global trade in plastic waste – valued at more than U.S. $5 billion per year.

Kuala Lumpur began moving to combat plastic waste after officials earlier said that 24 containers of plastic waste from Spain had been smuggled into Malaysia at Port Klang, Selangor, using a falsified customs declaration.

Since 2017, Malaysia has been buying discarded plastic from Britain, Australia and the United States, overrunning dozens of illegal factories with un-recyclable scrap that is often burned surreptitiously and releases chemicals such as dioxins, which could harm the nervous system.

In February, the Malaysian government said it had shut down 139 unlicensed plastic recycling factories since last July.

Indonesia: household waste mingled in

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest country, imported 35,000 tons of plastic waste per month from Germany, Australia and the United State in late-2018 – a sharp increase from 10,000 tons monthly in late-2017, according to trade ministry figures.

Those three countries were the leading exporters of plastic waste in Southeast Asia, which accepted more than 705 million pounds of plastic trash last year, according to Rosa Vivien Ratnawati, director general of waste management at the environment ministry in Jakarta.

“The imported plastic is non-hazardous and non-toxic waste in the form of scrap and clean plastic,” she told BenarNews.

Under a 2016 Trade Ministry regulation such materials can be imported and categorized as residual waste for recycling, she said.

Ratnawati is among Indonesian officials who support the global trade in plastic waste.

In November last year, Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto sent a letter to the environment ministry urging it to lift the existing import ban, which environmentalists claim was largely unenforced. He said Jakarta enjoyed a $40-million trade surplus by exporting recycled plastics.

Environmental groups have expressed concerns that local companies capitalized on the mountain of trash through illegal imports. They accuse illicit factories of indiscriminately incinerating the plastic waste that cannot be recycled.

“Some people profit from such imports but actually they are also adversely affected because, in fact, the waste will eventually threaten public health,” Prigi Arisandi, founder of Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (Ecoton), told BenarNews.

Indonesian environmentalists also claim that used paper and household waste have been coming in with plastic waste imported by factories.

“Indonesia has 55 paper companies, 22 of which are in East Java and we have found that they import used paper and what is of concern is there’s plastic waste in materials that are imported,” Prigi said.

“We found out that other countries, such as the United States, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, dispose of their household waste by exporting it among used paper,” he said.

Ecoton estimates that as much as 70 percent of the paper coming in for recycling is contaminated with plastic waste.

A man stands on tons of imported plastic trash at a dumpsite in Bekasi, a city in West Java, Indonesia, May 16, 2018. [Ahmad Syamsudin/BenarNews]
A man stands on tons of imported plastic trash at a dumpsite in Bekasi, a city in West Java, Indonesia, May 16, 2018. [Ahmad Syamsudin/BenarNews]

Thailand reduces import quota

In Thailand, authorities have sought to deal with plastic waste imports by reducing the quota “from several hundreds of thousands of tons to 70,000 tons and allow only good, recyclable plastic,” Pralong Damrongthai, director-general of the Department of Pollution Control, told BenarNews.

Thailand’s imports spiked to 75,000 tons per month in early-2018 with plastic trash coming from main exporters Japan, the United States and Hong Kong, according to Greenpeace’s 2018 Recycling Myth Report.

As environmental impacts deepened in Thailand’s rural areas, the military-led government raided plastic recycling factories.

In mid-2018, Thailand’s Natural Resources and Environment Department temporarily prohibited imports of plastic waste and announced plans to completely ban recyclable plastic imports by 2020.

“We will ban 422 kinds of wastes within a two-year time,” Pralong said.

Philippine-Canada garbage row

Unwanted trash, including soiled plastic bags, has also weighed heavily on diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Canada.

Manila questioned Ottawa’s pro-environment reputation after Canada missed a May 15 deadline to take back thousands of tons of trash in containers labeled as plastics that was shipped to the Philippines for recycling by a Canadian company in 2013.

Earlier on in the garbage feud, President Rodrigo Duterte even threatened to sail to Canada and personally dump the garbage on the country’s shores.

Further escalating the protracted conflict, Manila recalled its ambassador and consuls to Canada on Thursday.

The Philippines would “maintain a diminished diplomatic presence” in Canada until Ottawa took back the unwelcome trash, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said in a message posted on Twitter last week.

On May 16, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo Jr. said the diplomatic recall was aimed at putting pressure on Ottawa to speed up the retrieval of the garbage.

“The fact alone that Secretary Locsin has recalled our diplomats there (Canada) shows that we are not only serious, but we’re warning them that we’re gonna sever diplomatic relations with them,” Panelo told reporters.

Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

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